After losing their opening game by a single point, the Chargers have won four straight games, making them everyone’s boutique pick. Chances are they will continue that streak in Oakland, but it should still be noted that San Diego has beaten only one team with a winning record (Seattle), and while their last two victories were blowouts, both games were home stands against crummy East Coast teams (Jaguars and Jets). Those last two wins were by a combined point total of 64-14, which undoubtedly helps the Chargers’ scary defensive rankings (#1 in points allowed, #2 in passing yards allowed).
If there’s one thing the NFL proves week after week after week, it’s that every game is winnable, and every team is beatable. San Diego certainly has the advantage in talent and coaching here, but this game is an opportunity for the Raiders to show whether their woes are more related to talent or coaching. (The reasonable assumption is that it’s a good measure of both.)
One thing Raider Nation seems to agree on is that Reggie McKenzie is much more to blame for the current state of the team than Dennis Allen was; after all, Allen was simply doing what he could with the roster he’d been given. But I think this game will also show Tony Sparano to be the type of coach that Dennis Allen simply wasn’t — and more importantly, the type of coach this team needs right now. In the face of successive blowouts, Allen’s cool, professional sideline demeanor came across more and more as simply passive, accepting of mediocrity and failure. Sparano is more of the in-your-face type that will light a fire under the team and hold underperformers accountable.
The Raiders have lost their last ten games by an average margin of 13.1 points, and the first four games of this season by an average of 13 points. I’m not much for making predictions, but this is the type of game that the Raiders tend to win, or at least play more competitively. I think they probably lose by a field goal or a touchdown, no more than that, and that the coaching change at least starts somewhat more positively.
Keys to Victory
Same as it ever was — this team will stand or fall by how well they establish the run game. McFadden has been running hard, but mostly into brick walls. Greg Olson has to get him out on the edge in space, where he’s at his best. Jones-Drew has to be a part of the game, and run with the same urgency that McFadden has been. Latavius Murray has not been used much at all, largely due to the offense’s inability to stay on the field.
More balance in the passing offense. While the short game keeps Carr upright and plays things safe, it also allows defenses to stack more in the box and shut down the run, and hold the passing game to short gains. More medium and long-range passes will keep opponents honest.
Third down conversions. The Raiders’ offense is second-worst in the league, with only a 33% conversion rate. Getting the running game going, and cutting back on the dropped passes, will go a long way towards fixing this.
Stop the run. The defense has surrendered an average of 158.2 yards per game in the first four games, easily the worst in the league. Branden Oliver ran for 114 yards last week against the Jets’ 8th-ranked run defense, more than 20 yards over their per-game average. The Raiders need to shut down Oliver early and often to keep this close.
The Rivers-Gates connection. Now in their 12th season together, Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates have been a potent combination, and an ongoing source of frustration for the Raiders over those years. Gates has career totals of 92 TDs and nearly 9,500 yards, many of them against Oakland. In five games this season, Gates already has five touchdowns. The Raiders secondary, having already made second-tier QBs such as Ryan Tannehill and Geno Smith look elite, will have their hands full.
Third down conversions. Obviously, this is a sore spot on both sides of the ball, as the defense is tied for worst at allowing opponents to convert at a 50% rate. Many of these have been on 3rd & 10+ yards. Again, with the secondary and linebacker corps depleted, line pressure is critical to staying in this game.